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Williams - Gateway to the Grand Canyon

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Greetings From Williams, Arizona

Greetings From Williams, Arizona vintage postcard


Like the rest of the vast West, Williams was first home to many Native American Tribes for thousands of years. Later Spanish explorers would first see the Grand Canyon while searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola in the mid 1500s. One can only imagine their amazement when stumbling upon that massive canyon, after having traveled hundreds of miles over nothing but desert sand.

In the early nineteenth century, mountain men began to push west in search of the plentiful game, when the fur trade was at an all time high. One of these men was William Sherley Williams. "Old Bill,” which he was most often called, wandered all over the western states as a trapper and a scout on the Santa Fe Trail. Soon, other men in search of gold began to roam the area. After the Civil War, land speculators, anticipating the construction of the westward bound railroad, began to make claims on numerous areas in northern Arizona, including what would soon become Williams. Attracting sheep and cattle ranchers, the settlement was founded in 1876, taking the name of the famous mountain man, Bill Williams. In 1881 the first post office was established and on September 1, 1882 the railroad finally arrived. In no time at all, Williams became the shipping center for the nearby ranching and lumber industries.

In the beginning, Williams, like so many other towns of the Old West, gained a reputation as a rough and rowdy settlement filled with saloons, brothels, gambling houses and opium dens. Restricted by a town ordinance to Railroad Avenue’s "Saloon Row,” it didn’t stop the numerous cowboys, railroad men and lumberjacks from frequenting these many businesses.

Even back in those days, early tourism began when people traveled to the Grand Canyon via buckboards and stagecoaches.


In 1901, the Santa Fe Railroad extended its line from Williams to the Grand Canyon making the town the true "Gateway to the Grand Canyon." It was also in this year that a devastating fire swept through town, taking with it, some 36 businesses, including two hotels, plus ten homes in less than an hour. Within days, Williams began to rebuild and formed a new fire district.




Early in the 20th century, Williams also became home to one of the famous Harvey House Hotels. Called the Fray Marcos Hotel, the landmark still stands as a depot for the many passengers headed to the Grand Canyon.


In 1926, Route 66 was completed through Williams, which spurred several new businesses along the highway. It was this increased automobile traffic that would eventually shut down the rail service in Williams in 1968.


Ironically, the entire town would suffer the consequences of American’s need for speed when Williams became the very last Route 66 town to be bypassed by I-40 on October 13, 1984. Williams, like other Route 66 towns suffered, but because of its proximity to the Grand Canyon, not nearly to the degree of many other small towns along the Mother Road.  It was in the same year, that Williams’ entire downtown business district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Continued Next Page


Williams Arizona in the 1920s

Williams, Arizona in the 1920s, courtesy Cline Library,

Northern Arizona University


Williams Arizona Depot

The Williams Depot was once the site of one of the famous

 Fred Harvey Hotels, April, 2005, Kathy Weiser.

This image available for photographic prints HERE!


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